ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Gunmen killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese in their sleep on Tuesday in a pre-dawn raid on an oil field that Ethiopia blamed on rebels backed by regional foe Eritrea.
A separatist guerrilla group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), said it carried out the attack on the field which is run by a Chinese firm.
“Such an outrage, the cold-blooded murder of people who were building roads and engaged in other development activities, is a measure of the level of barbarity involved,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a news conference.
“We are terribly distressed ... no stone will be left unturned until we have found the people responsible.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman condemned the attack, which he said involved more than 200 gunmen.
Meles’s special adviser, Bereket Simon, accused the ONLF of fighting a proxy war on behalf of Asmara. Eritrea’s government rejected those allegations as “baseless”.
The guerrillas entered the camp at around five a.m. and shot dead the 74 people as they slept, Bereket told Reuters.
Seven other Chinese workers and “scores” of Ethiopians were kidnapped from the site near Jijiga, 630 km (390 miles) east of the capital Addis Ababa, he said.
“The government has launched hot pursuit,” he said.
In a statement, the ONLF said it attacked Ethiopian soldiers guarding an oil exploration field in Northern Ogaden region.
“The oil facility has been completely destroyed,” it said. Government forces in the area had been “wiped out, with many surrendering to ONLF commandos”, he said.
“The ONLF has stated on numerous occasions that we will not allow the mineral resources of our people to be exploited by this regime or any firm.”
Ethiopia’s government has long blamed the ONLF — ethnic Somalis fighting for independence from Addis Ababa — for attacks on government troops in the vast, dry Ogaden region.
Last year, the ONLF warned a state-run Indian company vying for a gas concession in the region to forget its plans.
Bereket linked Tuesday’s raid to last month’s abduction of five Europeans and eight Ethiopians in northeastern Ethiopia.
“We believe the killing has the same pattern with the recent kidnapping ... by an Eritrean armed group (aimed at) scaring away investors and foreign firms from coming to Ethiopia.”
Eritrea’s information minister, Ali Abdu, dismissed the charges, which he said were meant to divert attention from the two nations’ border dispute, over which the rivals fought a 1998-2000 war that killed 70,000 people.
“Ethiopia is also building a case to have a pretext for belligerent action against Eritrea,” he told Reuters.
China’s Xinhua news agency said the Chinese staff were working for Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, part of the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation.
The presence and influence of Chinese companies have grown hugely in Africa in recent years after Beijing set its sights on the continent as a supplier of raw materials for its booming economy. It has made most inroads in Africa’s oil sector.
As well as the ONLF, other small rebel groups operate in remote regions of the vast Horn of Africa nation. Although they do not challenge Meles’ power, they are a constant thorn in his side.
Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Asmara